In a summer filled with giant robots versus giant aliens, eccentric billionaires that fight crime, and monsters going to college, who would have thought the best summer film would have been an indie coming-of-age story about a kid going to work at a water park? Answer: not a lot. However, this critic (me, Greg!) believes that The Way, Way Back blows every other ‘summer movie’ out of the park, quality-wise, and in terms of sheer entertainment.
From IMDB: “14-year-old Duncan’s (Liam James) summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his daughter (Zoe Levin). Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell in a role that should score him an Oscar nod), manager of the Water Wizz water park.” Well, that sums it up pretty well. Could not have phrased it better myself. Good work, IMDB! Making reviewing films easier since 1903.
Something I hate in some films is when ‘awkward’ people are not really presented as a real world awkward, but rather manageable. In those films, the people that are awkward can handle themselves around others, and do not have a real problem fitting in. You know, I am not just going to regurgitate an article I read on Cracked. Read that real quick. It is pretty great.
Alright, all caught up? Good. The writer/directors of The Way, Way Back, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2011 for The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, make Duncan awkward. Not the ‘heh-I-am-uber-attractive-yet-awkward-aaaaaaah!’ type of awkward you just read about, they made him actually awkward. It felt like I was watching an actual teen! Crazy! It does pull a few of that Hollywood-awkward bullshit, but they never go overboard with it. It was believable. This is not just Faxon/Rash’s doing; Liam James does a superb job in this role.
There is something else crazy-good about this film: the contrast between two parts of Duncan’s summer life. The first twenty or thirty minutes of the film are spent with Duncan on the beach with his family and with his family friends. Duncan’s mother, Pam, really wants her relationship with her boyfriend, Trent, to work. Not just with Trent, but as a whole family. Trent seems to want it to work with Pam, but has to deal with her, as he perceives him, annoyingly awkward son. Then there are Trent’s friends, Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), who seem to be fine, but Trent wants to spend the whole time with them. Pam wants to spend time with Trent, so those four are always together. This part of the film is very cynical, providing negative themes about family and relationships.
And where is Duncan in this? He wanders away from them. He meets Owen, Sam Rockwell’s character, and they become friends. Owen offers him a job at the Water Wizz, a freaking awesome water park. Owen is, in a few words, eccentric, quick-witted, and wildly optimistic. He seems to just love people, especially those he meets at the Water Wizz. He has amazing chemistry with everyone in the cast, from Duncan, to potential love interest Caitlin (Maya Rudolph playing an employee of the Water Wizz), to Roddy and Lewis (more employees, played by the director/writers). Something else? He connects with Duncan more so than anyone else, including any member of the character’s family.
That second life Duncan experiences is an optimistic one, one that subtly implies that life is not so bad. It is very optimistic, contrasting with the cynicism of his first life perfectly. I realize that Faxon and Rash may have been going for a yin-yang effect here, with the contrast. There is a small bit of both sections that imply that nothing is pure optimism or cynicism. In his beach-house life, he meets someone, a teenager named Susanna (Anna Sophia Robb) who connects with him. The two both have divorced parents, both of whom wrecked something in their lives. At some point of the film, Susanna mentions that her mother (Allison Janney, who makes the cynical portion of the film much more enjoyable) becomes a disaster whenever Susanna is on the phone with her father, because her mom is afraid she will want to go live with him. Later, Duncan tell his mother he wants to go live with his father (no, not a spoiler; it is not a huge plot point, do not worry).
The yang of the optimistic section is Caitlin, Owen’s love interest. Everything is not so peaches and cream with her. She proclaims after Owen does something that could have injured a few kids that she wished she did not work at the Water Wizz. She did not want to spend as many years as she had working at the Wizz. “It was supposed to be a one summer job!” she says. She likes Owen a lot, as everyone should, but she does not think of him as a man as much as a boy in a man’s body. Scenes like this stuck with me, and probably will for a long time.
This is an exceptional film with more layers than I am able to bring up in a review. It goes places optimistic and dark, and travels the line between dramatic and comedic perfectly. If there was ever a standout in any film, it is Sam Rockwell in this one, giving a performance of a lifetime, bringing a character to life.
Do not treat this film like Duncan’s family did to him, putting him in the way, way back of their mind. Go see it. Go love it. Go give Sam Rockwell a hug.